SALT LAKE CITY — A Republican state lawmaker said Wednesday he's drafting a bill to eliminate the state sales tax on food entirely while raising the overall rate by less than a quarter of a percent.
Rep. Tim Quinn, R-Heber City, told the Legislature's Revenue and Taxation Interim Committee his bill for the 2018 session would retain the local 1.25 percent sales tax on food, so Utahns would still pay some tax on their grocery purchases.
Quinn said he believes Utahns would have no problem paying another 0.24 percent in the state's 4.7 percent sales tax rate to offset eliminating the 1.75 percent state sales tax now charged on food.
The increase "means that every time you or I buy a $30,000 automobile, we'd pay $72 in additional taxes," Quinn said, something "the public would be willing to accept if we helped to reduce the burden" on fixed- and lower-income Utahns.
No action was taken by the committee on the issue, a continuation of a discussion started last month about doing away with at least the state's share of sales tax on food.
Lawmakers dropped the sales tax rate on food in 2007 and 2008 as part of a larger tax cut package. But the shrinking sales tax base has raised concerns among some that the state shouldn't be giving up a stable source of revenue.
During the 2017 Legislature, Republican leaders unsuccessfully attempted to put together a deal to restore the sales tax on food and reduce the overall rate, while giving low-income Utahns a tax credit to offset the additional expense.
The committee, however, seems to be headed in different direction.
"I wonder sometimes about our values because this is something that is a regressive tax," said Rep. Marie Poulson, D-Cottonwood Heights, referring to an earlier discussion about reducing business taxes. "Are we equally committed to benefiting Utah families?"
Poulson said she's had nightmares about the choices she had to make at the grocery store as a young military wife on a limited budget, buying noodles and "filling up children with empty calories rather than nutritious food."
Sen. Deidre Henderson, R-Spanish Fork, had recalled a similar situation as a young mother during last month's meeting. Wednesday, she said wants to see the sales tax taken off food, even if it's just the state's share.
"Personally, I hate the sales tax on food," Henderson said. She said she would oppose restoring the tax and then creating "some kind of a new welfare program" or tax credit as compensation. "I think that's the wrong direction."
The committee's House chairman, Rep. Steve Eliason, R-Sandy, pointed out that higher-income residents would get the same tax break as those in need if the food tax is eliminated.
"I think the question that a lot of us have to answer is, it's not that we don't want to help people. It's how do we want to help them. Do we want to take a more shotgun or a more targeted approach?"
Quinn said his bill would leave it up to local governments whether to remove the 1 percent municipal and 0.25 percent county sales tax on food because it represents a significant portion of tax collections in many communities.
"If they want to do that on their own, which I know they won't, that's up to them. But I'm not going to dictate that from the state," he said. Nor will he attempt to impose a tax on soft drinks, candy or any other less healthy food choices.
"That's not the purpose of this," Quinn said. "I don't want to go to a senior couple who's on a fixed income and say, 'I'm going to dictate whether you buy bottled water or Coca-Cola.'"
The committee heard a report that candy, soda, bottled water and dietary supplements, product categories now considered food, at the full 4.7 percent sales tax rate would bring in nearly $30 million.
Advocates for taking the sales tax off food, including several wearing "Make Hunger Visible" T-shirts, an organization associated with Crossroads Urban Center, attended the committee meeting.
Bill Germundson of Make Hunger Visible told the committee that taxing groceries runs counter to the values held by many Utahns and that food security strengthens families. No other advocates were able to address the committee.
Melissa Jensen of Utahns Against Hunger told a reporter that her organization did not yet have a position on Quinn's proposal, which would likely leave local sales taxes on food in place.
"We do know that any decrease of the sales tax on food is great. Elimination of the sales tax on food would be wonderful," Jensen said. "But it’s really restoring the sales tax on food that we’re coming out strongly against."